Outside the cell, there was a scuffing of boots as one of the guards adjusted his position. Further down the corridor, Mr. Chapman – the nominal supervisor of the day-shift workers, who tended to defer all important decisions to the High Seeker – spoke in low tones to his own guards. A door's hinges creaked, and then the door closed with a soft thud. Then silence.
Silence had reigned in Vito's breaking cell for three hours now. Vito lightly leaned his hand against the cool stone blocks of the cell wall, a luxury he would ordinarily not have permitted himself. The painted surface of the wall was moist. The ventilation system in the Eternal Dungeon did a miraculous job of sucking moisture out of the underground dungeon's air, but the breaking cells were the most tightly enclosed rooms in the dungeon. Thin slots on the ceiling provided ventilation; the only other escape for the moisture was the equally thin space under the door and the tiny watch-hole, through which the junior guard was duty-bound to keep an eye on his Seeker, in case the Seeker should break the Code.
Breaking the Code with this particular prisoner seemed increasingly unlikely. For a prisoner to refuse to answer questions was not uncommon, particularly since the time that Layle Smith followed his love-mate's advice and ordered that a copy of the Code of Seeking be placed in every breaking cell, so that the prisoners could better understand their rights. Until then, Seekers had been required to recite the most important rules to prisoners, a practice still followed with prisoners who were illiterate or who knew only foreign tongues. But Elsdon, who had the prisoner's perspective on such matters, had argued that prisoners were often too terrified of their Seekers to fully absorb any introductory remarks made by the man whom the prisoner believed would be torturing them soon afterwards.
So now every prisoner received a copy of the Code. As a result, every prisoner knew that, if he wanted to avoid incriminating himself or being punished by a Seeker, all that he need do is stay respectful but silent.
This particular prisoner was not following the dungeon rules for "respect." Like a child who has been menaced, he was huddled under his high bed once more, gripping his legs against his chest and staring into his lap. Dungeon custom required that a prisoner stand during his searching, a custom that had broken more than one prisoner through weariness alone.
Vito considered that particular custom a form of mild torture. He was willing enough to practice it on hardy men who were used to standing for long hours at their work, but not on the slender youth before him, who looked barely into his manhood.
Vito's arm was growing tired of holding his weight. He shifted back to the position he had held before: parade rest, his legs apart, his hands at the small of his back.
The prisoner spoke. It was the first time he had spoken in three days. He said, "Aren't you tired?"
He had raised his eyes high enough to peer at Vito through his unkempt hair, which fell over his face. His arms were still rigid around his legs.
Vito replied, "A bit. But I've been trained to stand for long periods."
This reminder that Vito had received the training of a prison-worker had an unfortunate effect: the prisoner's face dived into the cradle of his arms. Vito simply waited.
It was not uncommon for many days to pass before a prisoner was broken. Elsdon's first prisoner had taken five months to break, though that was an extreme case. Two weeks was the average time needed to break a prisoner who was not tortured; one week for a prisoner who was tortured. One month was not unusual.
Vito was beginning to think that it would take a year to persuade this particular prisoner to speak. It didn't matter. Patience was one of his strengths as a prison-worker.
Two hours later, the prisoner said, "I'm tired too."
His voice was soft. It had always been soft, except when he had made that astounding announcement on the first day. Vito doubted that Mr. Crofford, standing behind the iron door, could hear the prisoner now. But he and Mr. Boyd had undoubtedly heard the prisoner cry out on the first day.
What did the guards think of this case? If they had been any other guards, Vito might have asked them. The High Seeker had been quite correct when he said that long-time guards could pass on valuable information concerning the handling of prisoners. Vito knew that himself, as a former guard.
But in face of Mr. Boyd's implacable hostility and Mr. Crofford's frigid formality, Vito hadn't been tempted to ask. Nor had he been able to consult Birdie about this case. He would have to solve it himself.
He suggested, "You might be a bit cramped. You could walk about for a spell."
The prisoner greeted this suggestion with wide eyes. "You wouldn't mind?"
"Not at all. I might do the same. There's room enough here, near the door."
"Oh." The prisoner slid out from under the bed, keeping a wary eye on the other inhabitant of the cell. Vito did the same. He had been safer with the prisoner crouching under the bed; now the chances that Vito would be physically attacked by the prisoner had risen.
But the prisoner simply shook one of his legs, as though it had been asleep, and began walking back and forth before his bed. After a moment, Vito followed his example, striding the short length to and fro along the wall that held the door.
The breaking cells were exceedingly narrow, due to the need to cram as many cells as possible into the confined space of the inner dungeon. In the old days, before the renovation, the whipping ring had been placed upon the wall of glass blocks that hid the furnace, while the stone ledge that constituted a bed was located along one of the long walls. During the renovation, their positions had been reversed, so that prisoners could sleep in the warmest part of the cell. Vito had heard guards complain that the new arrangement made it harder for them to whip prisoners, because there wasn't enough room for them to draw back the whip. As far as Vito was concerned, that was reason enough for the change.
The prisoner was walking rapidly to and fro, his head bowed, his left arm behind his back with his left hand grasping the right arm, behind the elbow. The position of service. Had this prisoner been in service, then? The mid-class accent remained to be explained.
After a few minutes, Vito said, "Better?"
"Yes, sir, thank you."
Lack of respect was clearly not going to be a problem with this prisoner. Vito was relieved at that knowledge. One of the easiest justifications that Seekers found for torturing prisoners was to claim the prisoners had violated the dungeon rule that prisoners and Seekers alike demonstrate signs of respect to one another. All that a prisoner need do is forget to say sir, or sit down for an instant, or some other trivial lapse, and the Seeker would instantly have the prisoner bound to the whipping ring. After three such lapses, the Seeker had an excuse to rack the prisoner, with the High Seeker's permission. The High Seeker rarely failed to give permission.
It was a much easier way to break the prisoner than waiting three days for him to speak. Vito had been somewhat nervous on the second day, when the prisoner collapsed into a huddle under his bed. His nervousness came from the fact that Mr. Crofford was watching the exchange. Would the guards intervene, knowing that Vito had permitted a prisoner to break the Code?
But there had been no intervention. Perhaps there would be some positive aspects to Mr. Boyd's clear commitment to protect the prisoners against evil-hearted Seekers.
Vito made no further remarks, but after a minute, he paused to stretch. The prisoner followed suit. Then Vito stretched his leg out to one side: stretching his left leg while standing on his right leg, then stretching his right leg while standing on his left leg. The prisoner followed suit and then, of his own accord, began leaning forward to touch his toes.
The prisoner knew calisthenics. Therefore, at some time or another, he had either been gently schooled or had attended classes at the Young Men's Rebirth Association.
Calisthenics were not taught at commoners' schools. The mystery deepened.
Vito said, "I always used to hate calisthenics class. Too rigidly formal, I thought. I preferred the rough-and-tumble of the athletics field."
The prisoner peered at him sideways as he pushed imaginary dumb-bells away from his chest, but said nothing. Perhaps, upon reflection, "rough-and-tumble" was the wrong phrase to have added to this conversation.
Vito tried again. "Or schoolwork. I liked that. All those books, teaching me things I'd never known before. . . . I suppose I was an unusual schoolboy."
No response from the prisoner. Well, it had been worth a try. Vito pulled himself up from doing squats and leaned against the wall, panting. He was soaked to the skin with sweat. Intelligent Seekers, who knew that they would be standing for hours on end at the cold end of breaking cells – not to mention in the chilly rack rooms – would bundle themselves up in layers of warm drawers. That type of clothing was ill-suited for exercise. He could feel the cool air begin to prick his moist skin.
The prisoner said, as though surprised, "I was hot, but now I'm getting cold."
"It's probably due to your perspiration. There's a blanket on your bed. I'll call for a fresh set of clothes for you."
"No, don't!" The prisoner's voice was so anguished that Vito turned back, his hand still raised on the point of knocking on the iron door. He held the key to the cell, but the prisoner wasn't to know that.
At Vito's enquiring look, the prisoner stammered, "I . . . I'd rather not take off my clothes in front of you, sir."
It was not unknown for prisoners to fear rape at the hands of their Seekers, but there was something particularly poignant about having a youth stare at him with fright.
Vito was not so far past his own youth that he had forgotten the vulnerability of that time. He had heard that, in Vovim, only brothel youths shared men's beds, but the customs were different in Yclau. His parents had made sure that, after a certain age, he always walked the streets with groups of friends or with a trusted family escort. There had also been long, earnest discussions, late at night, as to whether they should appoint Vito with a "guardian," as the Yclau termed it. Vito himself had taken part in the discussions. His parents were modern-minded enough to believe that the youth should be consulted on such matters, and Vito's father had made clear that Vito need not sleep with his guardian unless he desired instruction that would help him in his marriage-bed.
Though he did not tell his parents, Vito already knew that his destiny lay in the Eternal Dungeon. He might or might not be free to marry there – he might be hired as a guard and thus be permitted to marry – but he had no particular desire to wed. His life's goal was focussed, quite narrowly, upon reforming the Eternal Dungeon. Unlike Birdie, who would eventually marry a fellow Seeker, Vito wasn't interested in diluting his energy through domestic concerns.
Besides, he had already received what sexual instruction he might need from his schoolfellows.
So he had passed up the opportunity to be gently mentored by a man who would protect him against less scrupulous men. As a result, his youth had been haunted by a certain awareness of danger from older men.
What must it be like to be a youth who had barely reached manhood, and who found himself the captive of an older man?
Vito tried to give a reassuring smile, though he knew that the prisoner could not see his expression behind the hood. "I wouldn't stay in the room while you changed. And I won't touch you, whatever happens. The guards may touch you, under narrow circumstances that are in accordance with the dungeon's Code, but Seekers are never permitted to touch prisoners. It's one of our strictest rules."
A rule that had been broken many times, and not only by Seekers who wished to harm their prisoners. Even Elsdon had admitted privately to Vito that, more than once, he had longed to place his arm around a prisoner who was sobbing in anguish.
"The regulation against touching prisoners is a good rule, Vito," Elsdon had said, "but it's a bit too inflexible for my liking. There ought to be a way to reframe it to allow Seekers to comfort their prisoners. I know that it hurt me greatly that the High Seeker wouldn't touch me when I cried during my imprisonment."
Vito's prisoner stared down at his feet, biting his lip and looking very young. He whispered something.
"What did you say, Mr.—?"
He hesitated on the name, but the prisoner appeared not to notice. Speaking just above a whisper this time, the prisoner said, "But you'll have to touch me when you torture me."
His voice must have been overly firm, for the prisoner's gaze flew up; astonishment lay in his eyes.
"No," Vito repeated firmly but more gently. "That's not the type of work I do. I'm capable of carrying out my duties without need for torture. It goes against my professional pride to resort to racks." It went against a great deal more than that, but he had decided beforehand that "professional pride" was the most convincing excuse to use, should this topic arise with any of his prisoners.
Now the astonishment on his prisoner's face was giving way to a look of wonder. "But . . . but what do you do to your prisoners, then?"
"I talk to them."
"Yes. That's all. We talk, and I listen to anything they want to tell me."
The prisoner considered this with furrowed brow before blurting out, "I wasn't trained in the social graces."
Vito managed, with effort, to keep from smiling. "That doesn't matter. You needn't talk about the weather or the fashions this season or any other gracious conversation."
"Then what do you talk about with your prisoners?" the youth asked cautiously.
"Well," said Vito, feeling on safer ground now, for he had entered into the portion of the Code that he actually agreed with, "the first thing I do is try to determine whether my prisoner is innocent—"
"Oh!" The prisoner's face lit up, glowing like a newborn sun. "Do you? Do you really? Then I—"
And then the glow was gone, as though the moon's face had suddenly eclipsed it. The prisoner's expression had turned with frightening suddenness to despair. "Then I'm lost," he whispered.
"Why is that?" asked Vito quietly.
The prisoner toed the tiled floor, saying nothing.
"Mr. Gurth?" Vito said yet more softly.
The prisoner did not look up.
"Or do you have another name?" pursued Vito.
The prisoner nodded, a brief jerk of the head, without raising his gaze.
"What is your name?"
"You said it," whispered the prisoner.
"Or? As in either/or?"
The prisoner's face seemed shadowed by a smile for a moment, and then the incipient amusement disappeared. "Yes," the prisoner said. "Either. Or."
"And who is Mr. Gurth?" Keeping his voice low, Vito moved to the center of the cell, so that there would be no chance of the guards overhearing him. "Is he your 'either'?"
The prisoner bit his lip again. He was clutching his trouser legs now, his knuckles white.
"Does he look like you?" Vito persisted.
The most likely possibility, of course, was that this was a case of mistaken identity. It was not supposed to happen, especially in the Eternal Dungeon, but occasionally the patrol soldiers would arrest someone who simply looked like the criminal. Surprisingly few prisoners had ever tried to exploit this fact by pretending that they had been mistaken for the real criminal.
This youth might be the exception, though.
The prisoner lifted his head; the astonishment had returned to his eyes. "I don't know," he said. "I . . . I suppose he must."
"You've never seen him?" Vito took a few steps forward, keeping a careful eye on the prisoner.
The prisoner, though, seemed too absorbed in this question to be considering an attack. "How could I?" he responded. "It's either him . . . or . . ."
Vito felt a prickling along his back that did not come from the coldness of his sweat. "Or you? He goes away when you're here?"
Again the prisoner hung his head, remaining silent.
"Just Or," the prisoner whispered.
"'Or,' then," said Vito quietly, "I'm trying to understand. Is someone taking your place?"
"Oh, no." The prisoner shook his head. "Not at all. I'm the intruder. He's real, and I'm the one who takes over his mind and body."
"You're so close to successfully ending your training that you really ought to find yourself a love-mate here."
Leaning over to hand Elsdon a wrench, Vito blinked rapidly. He had not expected so direct an approach.
Not that he mistook Elsdon's meaning. His early fears that Elsdon would seek to change the nature of their friendship had faded as he realized how unlikely that was. In the ordinary way of things, he supposed, Elsdon would have sampled the beds of various Seekers, the way many Seekers did. Elsdon was too generous-minded a man to confine his love to a single person.
But Elsdon had not taken the ordinary way of things: he had taken Layle Smith as his love-mate. The High Seeker, it was manifestly clear to Vito, was a man whose single-minded focus on Elsdon had become dangerously possessive.
Still trying to figure out how to raise the subject he wished to discuss, Vito protested, "I'm no frustrated virgin, Elsdon. I'm not going to rape my prisoner!" He had told Elsdon of his prisoner's fears – he had felt he could share that much with Elsdon – as a general way of raising a topic that was increasingly concerning him.
Elsdon gave a sad little laugh as he tightened a screw on the underside of a rack he lay beneath. "It's dangerous to predict what any of us are capable of, but I wasn't envisioning that. There are other ways that an unmated Seeker can be a danger to his prisoner . . . Well, Layle could speak better about this than I can."
Vito could well imagine that the High Seeker had great expertise on the topic of sexually assaulting one's prisoners. Like all Seekers, Layle Smith's public records lay open to view to Seekers and guards. Vito had perused those records carefully upon his arrival in the dungeon. His only surprise had been that the High Seeker was arrested for raping a prisoner in this dungeon on a single occasion.
The case had been hushed up, of course. Since it was run under its own laws, separate from the queendom's, the Eternal Dungeon possessed its own judicial system. In theory, a Seeker who had committed premeditated rape or murder ought to be condemned to death, just as any of the dungeon's other prisoners would be. Indeed, the Code of Seeking went further than Yclau law, defining any sexual contact between a prison-worker and a prisoner as rape, punishable by the death of the prison-worker.
In practice, though, such a punishment rarely occurred, for any execution must enter into the public record. The Eternal Dungeon was all too fond of protecting its reputation against open scandal.
"I suppose," Vito said, delicately toeing his way around the subject at hand, "being mated to you helps him."
"To keep control of himself with the prisoners?" Elsdon replied cheerfully as he leaned to the side to drop a rusted bolt into his tool chest and to select a new one. "Oh, Layle's control over himself is extraordinary – you'd know that if you realized how powerful his urges are toward destruction."
This was hardly the reassurance Vito had sought. Still dancing around the edge of his chosen topic, he said, "And it's not hard for you?"
"To keep control of myself with the prisoners?" asked Elsdon, wiping his sweaty forehead with a rag. Budget cuts had forced the dungeon to cease hiring blacksmiths, who were ordinarily in charge of keeping the racks in working order. Elsdon, who had been a mechanical-minded boy, had spent so many years quizzing the blacksmiths about their work on the racks that he had volunteered to take over as the dungeon's mechanic of racks. Vito had entered the rack room just as Elsdon was pulling a pair of pincers off the wall, from the collection of antique instruments stored there.
Sometimes Elsdon did things which Vito found entirely bewildering. He supposed it was the influence of Layle Smith. "No," he replied to Elsdon. "I mean . . . helping your love-mate to keep control of himself . . ."
"You mean our special form of lovemaking?" responded Elsdon bluntly, still chipper as he tightened hard the nut around the new bolt. "It's easier for me than for Layle. For me, it's something I do out of love for him. For Layle, it's a genuine need. He was ashamed of himself for years. Do you know that three of his past love-mates abandoned him when they discovered he was a sadist in the bedroom? Three! I can't imagine how much courage it took him to tell me, and to ask me to bond with him."
Vito had no wish to hear about Layle's past love-life. "And you . .. I mean, given your past . . ."
Elsdon turned his head. "Vito," he said in his usual direct manner, "are you asking me what I do in bed with Layle?"
He felt his face flame. Reaching aside for the flask of water he had brought with him, he said quietly, "I heard you crying last night."
He had heard more than that. He had heard Elsdon shouting for help, and then screaming, and then, after a suitable interval, emitting sobs so deep that Vito could imagine that Elsdon was still with his father, being bound and beaten.
"Oh, Vito," said Elsdon, pulling himself out from under the rack. "I'm so sorry." He put his arm around Vito.
It was just like Elsdon to seek to comfort him at such a moment. He shrugged within the warmth of Elsdon's arm, muttering, "I don't want to invade your privacy, but—" But if Elsdon screamed like that again, Vito would attack the High Seeker, no matter what the consequences. The only reason he hadn't done so this time was because Layle Smith's night guards had been standing a little ways down the corridor, talking to each other, apparently unconcerned by the sounds of agony. Vito knew enough about the skills of the High Seeker's senior night guard that he didn't wish to test those skills. More importantly, Mr. Sobel was a friend to Elsdon, which had made it seem prudent to seek Elsdon's perspective on what had happened.
"Layle doesn't like us talking to others about what we do," Elsdon explained.
Sweet blood, Vito had figured that much out long ago.
"It's sacred to him," Elsdon went on.
"Sacred?" Vito pulled himself away from Elsdon's arm. "What sort of god does he worship, Hell?"
Elsdon gave a slight smile. "He has never told me. But I imagine Hell enters into it, yes."
Vito was aghast. In his worst imaginings, it had never occurred to him that Layle Smith was still following the faith of his native land, worshipping and emulating a god who raped and murdered. "And . . . in bed with you . . ." He would have Layle Smith dead for this. Surely there must be some way to enter a death charge against him. Elsdon's father would have been hanged for his abuse if sufficient evidence had existed.
Unexpectedly, Elsdon touched Vito's bare cheek – a brief, light touch, as soft as down. The junior Seeker's smile deepened. "You're really worried for me, aren't you? I ought to have explained to you before now. People who have known Layle for years, like Seward Sobel, don't worry about what he's doing to me, but you, so new to the dungeon . . ." Elsdon rose to his feet, stretching like a pleasantly satisfied cat after his nap. "It's sacred because it's a play, Vito. We play-act."
It took Vito a minute to understand what he meant. There had been a lecture on that in school, something about how theater was a form of religion for the Vovimians. . . . "So he play-acts he's Hell, and you're his victim?"
"Not always. Sometimes he's the man who rescues me from Hell. Or rescues me from anyone else who is harming me. But yes, sometimes he's the captor. He'll lay me out on a rack" – in a nonchalant manner, Elsdon gestured toward the instrument of torture beside them – "and torment me and rape me and prepare to kill me. And then, in the midst of that, he'll be transformed. He'll realize that he's wrong to harm me, and he'll heal me instead."
This was, without doubt, the most twisted form of love-making that Vito could imagine. Rising slowly to his feet, he said flatly, "Transformed."
"Yes, that part is true." Elsdon leaned over to toss the pincers into his tool chest. "Layle really was transformed, back when he was a torturer in Vovim's Hidden Dungeon. He realized suddenly one night, when he was at his terrible work there, that what he was doing was wrong. That's when he fled to Yclau and became a Seeker."
Vito could manage nothing but a bitter laugh. "I can't see that there's any difference between torturing a prisoner in Vovim and torturing a prisoner here."
Once again, Elsdon gave a slight smile. "There's a very great difference between the Hidden Dungeon and the Eternal Dungeon. You'd understand if you'd been there."
Too late to pull his words back; he had forgotten just how it was that Elsdon had come by his knowledge of the Hidden Dungeon. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pull the scabs off old wounds. . . ."
Elsdon waved aside his apology. "That was years ago. I don't regret my imprisonment in the Hidden Dungeon. I learned a lot there that was of value to me."
"That there are worse places than the Eternal Dungeon?" He watched as Elsdon turned the wheel of the rack, testing its readiness for use. The wrist-straps were controlled by the wheel; the ankle-straps were fixed to a heavy bar that did not move. As the wheel turned, the wrist-straps moved back, stretching the anguished body of their imaginary prisoner. Vito felt sick.
"Oh, I already knew that." Elsdon clicked the wheel into the notch of its highest setting. "My father's torment was enough to teach me that. No, what I learned at the Hidden Dungeon was that the Eternal Dungeon has its unique dangers. In its own way, it can be as evil as any prison on this planet."
Vito just managed to keep his jaw from dropping. He had never imagined he would hear Elsdon speak the words that Vito had thought for so long. "In what way?" he asked.
"Through its idealism." Satisfied, Elsdon moved back from the rack. Taking the flask that Vito offered him, he swallowed the remaining water, wiped his face neatly with the rag, and said, "Because we Seekers are so high in our ideals – so strong in our belief that what we do benefits the prisoners – there is a much greater danger here than in the Hidden Dungeon or any other unscrupulous dungeon that we will harm the prisoners while seeking to help them."
Sweet blood. Exactly what he had concluded at age ten, when he sneaked into this dungeon. Exactly what Birdie too had concluded, he knew from his conversations with her.
He and Birdie had reached that conclusion, and then they had set out to find a way to overturn the Eternal Dungeon's practices: to wipe away the old abuses, the ancient chains and tortures, and turn the dungeon into a modern prison that truly lived up to the idealistic words of the Code of Seeking.
And Elsdon . . .
"What did you do with this knowledge?" Vito asked. His heart was beating so hard now that his hand was unsteady as he took back the flask. A potential ally. He had not been sure before, but now he was close to knowing. If Elsdon was secretly waging war against the High Seeker, then Vito and Birdie could share their plans with him—
Elsdon abruptly turned aside and began fiddling with the rack-straps. "I told the Codifier of my concerns."
The disappointment was cold in his stomach, like the sickness that had come before. "What did the Codifier say?" he asked, knowing the answer. The High Seeker and the Codifier were two chessmen of the same color, forever upholding the dungeon's current destructive regime.
"He thanked me for my insight." Elsdon did not look up from the rack. "He promised me that my thoughts would be taken into consideration when he and Layle selected a successor for the High Seekership, and that man penned the next revision of the Code."
Which was as much to say that nothing would change. Vito could just imagine what sort of man Layle Smith would select as his successor. At best, it would be Weldon Chapman, who was a good man and could have been a good Seeker if he hadn't chosen to blindly follow Layle Smith down every disgusting path.
At worst . . . Over the years, Layle Smith had filled the dungeon with like-minded Seekers. Admittedly, many were older than him and had probably been there since his own days of training, but despite their clear hostility to any sort of change in the dungeon, the supposedly forward-thinking High Seeker had made no effort to have them dismissed. Instead, he had concentrated all his energies on dismissing or executing any guard or Seeker who strayed in the slightest from his old-fashioned policies. He had made it impossible in this dungeon for any prison-worker to so much as whisper the heresy that there might be better ways to reform prisoners than to break their bodies.
And Elsdon . . . Oh, Vito could see the cleverness of Layle's scheme now. No doubt the High Seeker enjoyed what he did to Elsdon in bed, but his nefariousness lay deeper than that. He had trained Elsdon to submit to him, to interpret chains and torture as pleasure, to extend that twisted outlook to Elsdon's own work—
"You're glossing again," observed Elsdon in the mildest of voices.
Vito blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Glossing my words. You recall the scribes in the middle centuries who used to write glosses for prayer books? They'd take a prayer that was three lines long, and before they were through, their gloss on the prayer would fill a hundred pages. You do the same thing when you're talking to people. You gloss what we say, at greater length than what we've actually said."
He felt his face flame again. "I'm a bit worried about you, that's all—"
Elsdon laughed then, picking up his tool chest from the floor. "Vito, you do it with everyone. People have commented. Layle said that you're the most introspective man he has ever met, outdoing even himself. He says that when he has you into his office, he always makes your appointments twice as long as other people's because he knows that half that time will be spent with you silent, interpreting in your mind the words he has spoken. He says that you sometimes get so caught up in your thoughts that you forget he's there and miss him thanking you for your time."
This was so unjust an accusation that Vito strangled on a reply. Glancing over his shoulder at the mended rack, Elsdon added, "Layle used to do the same, but in his case it was due to daytime dreamings, and he successfully worked hard to stop himself from dreaming while he was searching prisoners. He was always aware of the dreamings, from the time they first started when he was a youth. But you, Vito . . ." Elsdon turned back, his expression somber. "You didn't realize until I told you, did you? Even though everyone else around you knew. If you aren't willing to face your own self-deceptions, how do you expect to help the prisoners face theirs? And how can you truly listen to what the prisoners tell you if you're busy glossing and interpreting their words and actions?"
The embarrassment and anger had receded, leaving behind a great weight of humility. It was not the first time this had happened. Elsdon was truly one of the most skilled Seekers in the dungeon. You would go to him, thinking that you were about to aid him, and then he would "turn the turtle over," as the Vovimians put it, and you'd find yourself lying with your vulnerable belly up, needing a helping hand from Elsdon to escape from your predicament.
"I'll try to change," Vito said quietly.
"I know you will, old friend." Elsdon rested his free hand lightly on Vito's shoulder. "You have a gift for self-transformation. I've known that since I witnessed you emerge from this dungeon as a child and dedicate yourself, at the age of ten, to spending your life helping prisoners. I'm a much better man because I knew you when I was young."
And that too was just like Elsdon, thought Vito as Elsdon doused the oil lamp in the rack room before opening the door. To Elsdon, that long-ago episode was only a dim memory, but he would recall it as a way to energize Vito into keeping his promise.
A Seeker of exceeding talents. What would happen to this dungeon if Elsdon finally chose to turn the turtle over with Layle Smith, and seek his own, separate path?